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Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum sinking 3-pointers with unforeseen and unparalleled efficiency

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DETROIT – Jayson Tatum says he doesn’t understand eschewing mid-range jumpers, which analytics have shown are typically less efficient when other shots – 3-pointers and shots at the rim – are available. He subscribes to decades of basketball orthodoxy reinforced by his own experience at the highest level of college basketball and the praise heaped upon him at summer league.

“Some of the best players ever were great at mid-range,” Tatum said. “Kobe, Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce, Dirk.”

Ever since the Celtics drafted Tatum No. 3 last June, Boston coach Brad Stevens has tried to deprogram Tatum’s attitude on jumpers.

Tatum heard from Stevens during the summer.

“If I was involved in a film session at all this summer, it was about what a good shot looks like once you get to the NBA,” Stevens said.

Tatum heard from Stevens during training camp.

“If I would pass up a 3 to take a mid-range 2, he’d stop practice,” Tatum said.

And Tatum has heard from Stevens during the regular season.

“We have tried to make it an emphasis to don’t hesitate to shoot, right?” Stevens said. “He’s so tall that, on the catch, he can get that shot off. And probably his inclination has probably always been to fake it and drive it. But he shoots it with ease and feels good every time he shoots it.”

Somewhere along line, Stevens’ message got through. Tatum has taken more than twice as many 3-pointers as long 2s. The change in Tatum’s approach is an overwhelming victory for smarts over stubbornness. Simply by changing his shot selection, Tatum has become much more valuable to Boston.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s making a stunning 51.5% of his 3-pointers, either.

Not only does Tatum lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (among qualified players, as are all 3-point percentages in this story)…

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Not only is he on pace for the best 3-point percentage every by a rookie…

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He’s posting one of the best 3-point percentages of all-time:

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It’s a startling output for someone who didn’t shoot especially well from the college arc just last season. Tatum made just 34.2% of his 3-pointers in his lone season at Duke. Nobody with such a low college 3-point percentage has ever cracked 40%, let alone 50%, as a rookie.

“Anybody who says they’re not surprised by the 3-point shooting based on what he did in college is lying,” Pistons president/coach Van Gundy said.

Yet, Van Gundy endorses an assertion the Celtics made after they traded down from No. 1 to draft Tatum at No. 3.

“I thought he was the best prospect in the draft,” said Van Gundy, a more neutral observer. “He’s got all the tools.”

Tatum has the athleticism to attack the rim, and he has shown a proclivity for drawing fouls. At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and good mobility, he already looks like a solid defender with the potential to become a shutdown stopper. He’s helpful on the glass, too.

But it’s 3-point shooting that makes him the most likely No. 1 pick in a redone 2017 draft. Nobody else taken top six is shooting even 30% on 3s, the troubles of No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball especially pronounced.

Maybe Tatum’s long-distance success is unsustainable. He has attempted just 99 3-pointers (making 51). That’s not a large enough sample to prove Tatum is now reliable from beyond the arc. It’s probably wise to be skeptical of something that recently seemed so improbable.

On the other hand, even if this is just a hot stretch, it’s one usually reserved for good 3-point shooters. The player Tatum was most compared to before the draft, Carmelo Anthony, never made 51-of-99 3-pointers in any stretch of his career – and Anthony made himself into a pretty good 3-point shooter. There’s plenty of room for Tatum to regress and remain incredibly effective.

In the meantime, his 3-point percentage is sparkling as All-Star Weekend approaches. Tatum doesn’t expect to be selected for the 3-point contest, and he might be right. Part of his efficiency is due to selectivity. Despite starting and shooting so accurately, he’s tied for 59th in 3-pointers made. But he also hoped just to near 40% on his 3-pointers this season, and that prediction has been way off.

“If I got picked to do it, I’d definitely go,” Tatum said.

Tatum can’t control that. He can only somewhat control how many of his 3-pointers go in. But he can control how many he takes.

In that respect, maybe his talent was projectable.

“He’s a good listener,” said Pistons rookie Luke Kennard, who played with Tatum at Duke. “I know, when I was on the court with him, playing with him, I could always go up to him and talk to him about something on the court. Whether I thought I could do something better, he was listening. Next play, it was happening.”

Tatum’s next step is increasing his volume from three 3-point attempts per game. Shoot anyway when closing defenders are nearer. Mix in more pull-up 3s out of the pick-and-roll.

Why not? He has already made everything look so easy.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.